Fields of Knowing

Michael Polanyi’s Quantum Hermeneutic

Though slight, Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension makes some enormous claims. Over the course of the three lectures contained in the book the enormity of Polanyi’s argument “emerges” (true to his thesis) remarkably quickly, unfolding through often mind-boggling, but generally convincing, lines of reasoning. In the foreword to the text Amartya Sen writes that the “rapid-fire sequences of insights” that Polanyi articulates “without much pause for examining alternative interpretations and possible counterarguments” can “be a source of relief and delight for the general reader interested in philosophical ideas” (xv). I would argue against Sen, however, in that the quantum physical musings which Polanyi pursues near the conclusion of his text are sufficient in themselves to baffle this so called “general reader.” The Tacit Dimension is not for the layman, not a work of popular science or philosophy, but an intensely intellectual, jarringly intuitive, and logically difficult work. If one approaches it as such, however, as a philosophical work demanding reflection, rigorous reasoning, and a healthy dose of “commitment” (again a Polanyian theme) the text should prove fruitful. “Hidden,” as it were, behind the unassuming surface of Polanyi’s text, is a radical reimagining of reality that should not be ignored.

To understand the essential thrust of Polanyi’s work we must understand his initial premise: “we can know more than we can tell” (4). Our knowledge is not exclusively explicit. We can know things that we cannot articulate, cannot formally prove, cannot reason, but this does not mean that what we know is unreal or untrue. Quite the contrary: often what we know but cannot tell has a far more practical significance to us than the theoretical, explicable knowledge which we have acquired. We see this sort of knowledge most frequently in physical performances: I know how to sing, to swim, to ride a bike, to do backwards cross-overs on skates, all of which are skills I learned at some point in the past, but the mechanics of which I could not explain in the present. If I were really concerned to do so I could theoretically explain the expulsion of air from the lungs through the vocal chords, the coordination of arms and legs in a particular stroke and the buoyancy of humans in water, the turning of pedals and gears and the intricacies of balance, and the biological power required to push sharpened blades across a smooth surface, but I still would not know how to do any of these things, nor would I be able to explain them. I simply must do them. This sort of knowledge constitutes the tacit dimension.

Now, Polanyi would not argue that these skills cannot be explicated; rather, it is possible that “the detailing of particulars, which by itself would destroy meaning, serves as a guide to their subsequent integration and thus establishes a more secure and more accurate meaning of them” (19). My hockey coach knew the particulars of the backwards cross-over well enough to teach me, to help me “integrate” his tacit knowledge. But to actually do the backwards cross-over today, and to do it well, to do it easily, I cannot think about the theory of the maneuver. I simply must feel it (a point John Macmurray recognizes as well). Tacit knowledge is not naïve, uninformed, or incomplete knowledge, but instead constitutes an important part of our mental apparatus, that zone of thought which exists in closest relation to the world and our purposes in it. We cannot rid ourselves of the tacit, and nor should we want to.

What Polanyi argues, then, is that the tacit is always at work when we are “attending to” the world (9). In that my tacit knowledge of the backwards cross-over is invisible to me in the performance of the maneuver, my tacit knowledge in every area operates in the same way. This is the from-to structure of tacit knowing. This structure is the “functional structure” that allows us to apply our mental powers to the world, to “attend from something for attending to something else” (10). Tacit knowledge therefore also has a “phenomenal structure” in that “we are aware of that from which we are attending to another thing, in the appearance of that thing” (11). I can say that I know how to do a backwards cross-over on ice skates, not because I can explain the properties of ice, the dynamics of bodily movement, the manufacture of my skates, or the biological function of my muscles, but because all of these, and more, are integrated into the performance of the backwards cross-over, which is the appearance of my knowledge of it. In this way, the appearance of my tacit knowledge also has a “semantic aspect” (13), which is to say that it has a meaning. My tacit knowledge of the backwards cross-over is meaningful, though I cannot explain its particulars, and indeed cannot even be reduced to the knowledge of its particulars. The maneuver is only comprehensible in the relation of its parts. Polanyi’s final claim regarding the structure of tacit knowledge is that this meaning has an “ontological aspect” (13), that even something as abstract as a maneuver, a performance, has being insofar as it is a meaningful relation of particulars that comprises a unified whole. The backwards cross-over, and my tacit knowledge of it, is both real and true, though I cannot explain its reality and its truthfulness in terms of its parts.

Polanyi does not stop here, however. Having laid out the structure of tacit knowing, Polanyi extends the ontological aspect of the tacit to all of reality. Tacit knowing is not just a human faculty, but is the complex expression of a simpler capacity that exists throughout nature: emergence. To specify: mathematics is regarded as the purest discipline of human knowledge, but it cannot account for everything. With the principles of mathematics, physics describes the basic properties of the universe, the essential bits of matter from which everything is built. Physics is made possible because of math, and the laws of physics are expressed in mathematical terms, but physics cannot be derived in its totality from pure mathematics. Rather, physicists over the centuries have used their tacit knowledge of mathematics to reveal the “higher level” (40) of complexity that physics can articulate. In Polanyi’s language, physics has “marginal control” over mathematics, emerging from the “boundary conditions” (45) of mathematics. In Aristotelian terms, as soon as the potentiality of mathematics becomes concerned with actuality, the domain of physics must take over. The higher order law emerges from the lower order to govern the relation of particulars in the lower that have been actualized as a comprehensive whole. And the process continues: chemistry emerges from physics, biology from chemistry, psychology from biology, ethics from psychology. We could say more, but as the order of complexity increases, the delineation of boundaries between levels becomes similarly complex. Regardless, we see in Polanyi that the principle of emergence actually provides a ground to such higher order realities as society, morality, and faith. Though the particulars of these cannot be fully explicated, they can be known in their comprehension as a whole, which is to say, we can talk about them as real and true inasmuch as society, morality, or faith identifies a meaningful relation of parts.

This is a radical claim, but Polanyi is not finished. In the emergence of life from inanimate matter he still sees a problem, a “missing principle” which precipitates this emergence (88). Here Polanyi turns to quantum physics. He applies three theses: (1) “Inanimate nature is controlled by forces which draw matter toward stabler configurations” (88), (2) “stabler potentialities may be held in check by various kinds of friction, which may be overcome by catalytic releasing agents” (88), and (3) “Quantum mechanics has also established the conception of uncaused causes, subject only to control by a field of probabilities” (88-89). In other words, every stage of emergence “can be described as the actualization of certain potentialities” (89), including the emergence of sentience from the order of biology, and such phenomena as morality and faith from the order of sentience.

This is a counterintuitive claim. Essential to Polanyi’s argument is the time reversibility of quantum mechanical operations, which, to the lay reader, contradicts the ‘common sense’ of causation. The idea of an “uncaused cause[]” (89) comes across as sophistry. And yet, such an idea is an accepted “comprehension” in quantum physics, an “actualization of certain potentialities” identified and delimited in physics (89). The arrow of time—causation—is a higher order of reality that emerges from the probabilistic, atemporal order of quantum mechanics. Causation is not fundamental. This is a mind-bending, radical claim, but it is an important one. We see higher orders of complexity emerging out of lower orders, but we cannot explain why, cannot identify a cause. In quantum mechanics, however, cause is beside the point. Actuality is assumed to follow potency, but, as in classical thought, they are in fact simultaneous with each other. Indeed, potency cannot exist without some measure of actuality, however simple and small. From this perspective, all of reality is a “field of possibilities” (89) progressively actualizing itself, moving toward a greater and greater state of complexity and equilibrium. The notion of “progressively” is itself an emergent entity, the notion of time as it has emerged from that of probability. Here the intricacies of quantum physics far exceed the scope of this paper, but Polanyi’s conclusion remains: our tacit knowing is an actualization of the emergent structure of reality, which is an actualization of the potency of the field of possibilities that undergirds reality itself. As such, truth is not just possible but actual, an emergent phenomenon of the actual complexity and latent potentiality of human experience.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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